Barring the unforeseen, or maybe the unprecedented, the Democratic primary is over. Much the same goes for the Republican primary.
The broader media will now — at times in spite of itself — do what it always does, and, indeed, what it has tried to do for the last several months: it will water down the ills of our general election candidates by way of a surfeit of attention. It may not seem possible, but Hillary Clinton and Donald Trump will get more airtime than ever; they’ll monopolize a greater share of our reading and viewing lives. And it won’t be a win for civic duty: this media exposure will normalize their faults.
To be sure, the media’s normalization of establishment candidates is normal, and it reinforces their establishment status. But it won’t be restricted to mainstream coverage — it rarely is. The political and cultural left will join in the process, and it already has. In a conversation with the Guardian’s Gary Younge, the political philosopher and cultural theorist Slavoj Žižek recently mitigated Trump’s ills by offering him a close reading:
“Read Trump closely – it is difficult to do, I know – and if you extract his total racist and sexist stupidities, you will see that here and there, where he makes a complete proposal, they’re usually not so bad,” said Žižek. “He said he will not totally dismantle universal healthcare, raise the minimum wage, and so on. Trump is a paradox: he is really a centrist liberal, and maybe even in his economic policies closer to the Democrats, and he desperately tries to mask this. So the function of all of these dirty jokes and stupidities is to cover up that he is really a pretty ordinary, centrist politician.”
Now, it’s fair to say that Žižek’s persistent bid for cultural relevance is unique to his ego — at least among his cohort. You might even call this bid for attention “presidential.” After all, he once ran for president (as a liberal) himself. But the idea that Trump is a “paradox” is just an example of Žižek’s penchant for turning everything into a paradox. Paradox is his bread-and-butter as a cultural thinker. I’m fine with that.
And I get what Žižek is doing here. He wants to highlight the regressive nature of Democratic establishment economics. I’m not convinced, but not because I suspect there is a tremendous amount of difference between Clinton and Trump on these matters. It’s rather that Clinton has made some non-centrist promises during the primary — promises that will dissolve in the coming months. And Trump, for his part, remains inscrutable. He has no economic policy to speak of, beyond an amorphous promise for “deal-making.” Otherwise, both candidates would be friendly to finance; they already are. But allowing finance to continue its course isn’t a policy or plan. It’s an example of not having one.
Žižek nods to Trump’s inscrutability when he admits that he is “difficult” to read. Nowhere is Trump harder to understand than on the most important geopolitical questions. Namely, Trump — in a landmark speech that could signal the end of history — shows that he is perilously confused on the subject of nuclear weapons. Jeremy Bernstein’s hilarious (and disturbing) “analysis” of Trump’s non-position on nuclear weapons is now available at New York Review of Books — I recommend it. And to drive home why this matters now more than ever, I also recommend last weekend’s New York Times story on the inevitable renewal of Cold War-style militarism and rhetoric.
When I considered Trump’s “policy” on nuclear weapons in light of the New York Times piece, it occurred to me that the changeability and inscrutability of our likely candidates inspires a specific kind of fear. If, instead of a representative election, I suggested that we “draw lots” to pick our president, many would react by saying: “What about the nuclear briefcase?” You wouldn’t want “just anyone” to be president because the responsibility in a world of 15,000 nuclear weapons is too great. But electing Trump, in this respect, is like selecting a citizen at random. We can’t tell what he’d do. If you don’t believe me, just try to make sense of his answer to a sane interview question about nuclear weapons (“Do you think at some point [North Korea] should have their own arsenal?”):
Well, it’s a position that we have to talk about, and it’s a position that at some point is something that we have to talk about, and if the United States keeps on its path, its current path of weakness, they’re going to want to have that anyway with or without me discussing it, because I don’t think they feel very secure in what’s going on with our country, David. You know, if you look at how we backed our enemies, it hasn’t — how we backed our allies — it hasn’t exactly been strong. When you look at various places throughout the world, it hasn’t been very strong. And I just don’t think we’re viewed the same way that we were 20 or 25 ago, or 30 years ago. And, you know, I think it’s a problem. You know, something like that, unless we get very strong, very powerful and very rich, quickly, I’m sure those things are being discussed over there anyway without our discussion.
What? That’s my first question. But this primary has raised yet more interesting questions. For example: What happens when the primary is over? And this question is really two questions: What will Bernie Sanders do once he drops out? What will Obama do? For Sanders’ part, many will recommend that he help thwart “the rise of American fascism” by attacking Trump. That’s what Obama will do, and it will normalize Trump’s faults by giving them more attention. It will also make Clinton’s hawkish policies appear more sane.
As an alternative, Sanders could ignore the candidates and try to steal airtime with events devoted exclusively to encouraging socialism in America. I hope this is what he does. Socialism has always been the most efficacious antidote to Fascism. It’s a good response to randomness and inscrutability, too.